Q: Can you tell us what is the latest Church teaching about couples seeking a Catholic marriage, wherein one or both of the spouses are impeded from having children by a tubal ligation and/or vasectomy? Can a priest assist at such a marriage, if he were to know about the situation? Or is it enough that he ask them to consider a reversal? Seems like these cases are becoming an epidemic, and every priest seems to be handling this question differently. -- Fr. I.S. Belleville, New Jersey, USA
E. Christian Brugger and William E. May offer the following response:
People who sterilize themselves in order to prevent conception commit a grave offense, but their condition of itself does not prevent the validity of a marriage. Catholic Canon Law teaches: “Sterility neither prohibits nor invalidates marriage” (can. 1084, no. 3).
To contract a valid marriage, one must possess the capacity and the will to enter into a permanent and procreative-type of union. (The procreative part requires only that one be capable of having true intercourse, not that that intercourse must be fertile. More on this below.) If a priest knows that a person requesting marriage in the Church has sterilized him or herself, he should seek moral certitude that the person intends to contract a valid marriage. But if he knows the person is unrepentant, then he has a reasonable ground for questioning whether that person has a will to enter a procreative-type of union. In our judgment, he should not marry persons who say with an intractable will, “I’m sterilized and I’m not sorry.”
How can sterilized persons intend a procreative-type of union (i.e., be morally "open to life"), since knowing they are sterile they cannot intend to have children? Two things are required for openness to life. First, they must repent of the sin of sterilization. Sincere repentance undoes the moral self-determination against life that they realized in themselves when they chose to be sterilized. To repent of a serious sin such as sterilization requires sacramental confession.
Second, having repented, their conjugal acts remain "open to life" (i.e., are marital acts) insofar as they are: 1) chosen in a “human manner”; and 2) are “per se apt for the generation of a child” (canon 1061, no. 1), although the condition of sterility may make such generation impossible (or at least unlikely). The act is chosen in a “human way” insofar as it’s chosen freely (i.e., is not the result of physical or moral coercion). And it is “per se apt for the generation of a child” insofar as it is an ejaculatory act of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, which is the kind of act from which procreation could follow if couples are fertile. (Faithful moral theologians [and canon lawyers] disagree on the question of whether an intentionally contraceptive act of intercourse [e.g., using chemicals or barriers] is “per se apt for the generation of a child." We believe it is not.)
An external sign that a person has repented is that he or she seeks to reverse the vasectomy or ligation. A reversal is not required in order to marry in the Church. And if attempting a reversal were to cause serious burdens (e.g., grave financial difficulty or threat to health), then the attempt would not be morally obligatory. But in the absence of serious burdens, we believe a sterilized man or woman for the good of the marriage should attempt a reversal. This of course would not apply to couples who are past childbearing age.
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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and is an associate professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. He received his Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford in 2000.
William E. May, is a Senior Fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation and retired Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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